Don’t call Cage The Elephant a rock band.
Sure, if you look back at the last decade of the rock charts, you’d be hardpressed to find a band that has shown more dominance in the genre. Since the Kentucky six-piece offered up their self-titled debut album in 2008, they’ve topped the Billboard Alternative Songs chart a staggering eight times, with four other songs landing in the top 10. It’s a remarkable run that puts them behind only Red Hot Chili Peppers, Linkin Park, Green Day, and Foo Fighters in the chart’s history for the most No. 1s, and tied with U2.
Then there is the band’s revelatory live show, a swaggering presentation that often features the members exploring every corner of the performance space, leaping into the sky with abandon, and plunging into the audience with gusto. No two sets from the troupe are quite the same, with the group seemingly taking its cues from legends like The Rolling Stones, with the kind of charisma that could easily translate to a stadium, even if the band hasn’t quite earned the following yet to put them as headliners in the largest spaces available. But just because the shoe fits, that doesn’t mean it’s necessarily comfortable to wear.
“I don’t really feel tied to any genre specifically,” frontman Matt Shultz frustratedly claims early in our phone conversation when asked about his band’s place in the rock world, clearly bothered by the tendency to reduce the group to its most basic attributes. “That might come across surprising, but I find them incredibly hindering to the creative process.”
On the band’s latest album and their first since winning the Grammy for Best Rock Album for their previous release, 2015’s Tell Me I’m Pretty, Shultz is putting his money where his mouth is. Social Cues undoubtedly has plenty of sturdy guitarwork (the Vapors-sounding “Tokyo Smoke,” the fuzzed-out groove of “Dance Dance), moments of post-punk flair (the anthemic album opener “Broken Boy,” the attitude-driven single “House Of Glass“), and more than a couple emotionally-charged ballads (the tender and spare “Love’s The Only Way,” the lush album-closing “Goodbye“), but more than ever, the band’s varying tastes have crept into the fold. Look no further than their collab with Beck, “Night Running,” for forays into dub and hip-hop that sound something like an updated Specials for the 21st century, or the gentle orchestration of “What I’m Becoming” that places the band into the sort of timeless territory that many artists fail to ever achieve. Every album from the band is equal parts reinvention and refinement, and Social Cues finds Cage The Elephant more confident than ever in that formula, not relying on the tricks that got them to this point, but moving bravely into the unknown.
Social Cues is also the most personal album of the band’s career, taking root lyrically in the dissolution of Shultz’s marriage. References to the relationship’s end can be found throughout, often directly in songs like “Goodbye” and their current chart-topping track “Ready To Let Go.” The personal toll that it took for Shultz to record the album has been well-documented, with his bandmates (guitarist brother Brad Shultz, drummer Jared Champion, bassist Daniel Tichenor, guitarist Nick Bockrath, and keyboardist Matthan Minster) offering both emotional support and a platform to exorcize his demons. In our conversation, which has been edited and condensed for clarity and length, Shultz expands on the pain that fed into the album’s creation and the joy that comes out of the artistic process.